Archive for November, 2010

(Un)disclosed desires and collateral damages

November 28, 2010 10 comments

The Art of Losing, by Rebecca Connell.

Warning: this is an “after reading” review, full of spoilers. For a “before reading” review and a summary of the story, read Guy’s post here.

Now that you’ve read The Art of Losing or decided you wouldn’t, here are the thoughts I wanted to share about it.

The title. The Art of Losing sounds like the sequel of The Art of Love. (If interested, I reviewed it here.). Ovid tells the reader how to seduce and love. Rebecca Connell shows the consequences of The Art of Love. I think ‘losing’ can be taken in two different ways. On the one hand, it can relate to how lovers and spouses move on after an affair. But in this case, the loss is also that of a mother and the unhealed wound it left in Louise. So, it’s not just about moving on for the lovers but for their families too. On the other hand, “Losing” is also used for games. Everybody lost something in this fool’s game as all the protagonists are somehow impacted by the affair between Lydia and Nicholas. Only Adam seems rather unscathed: he only loses a girl-friend, but his relationship is too recent to have created a strong bond. No one tells him the truth.

As Guy pointed it, the construction of this novel is well thought and powerful. The alternate voices of Lydia/Louise and of Nicholas give life to the story. Lydia’s voice is absent and it leaves huge holes in the picture. She’s dead but she could have been there through a diary or letters. Her ghostly presence hovers upon the characters. The reader only perceive her through Louise’s and especially Nicholas’ eyes. She never gets a chance to explain her choices and this kills Nicholas and haunts Louise. No one knows why she never left Martin and worse, if she committed suicide or if her death was an accident.

I thought the style a little weak. I’ve read this book in English, almost as fast as I would have read a French novel and I didn’t need the dictionary that much. This is not a good sign for the writer. I thought the first chapter describing the meeting between Louise/Lydia and Adam really cheap romance. Afterwards, I saw it as a re-play of Nicholas and Lydia’s first meeting. I agree with Guy, Nicholas’ voice is more convincing that of Louise. Rebecca Connell found the right tone for Nicholas but struggled to find Louise. Perhaps this is not a flaw in the writing but on the contrary a brilliant success: as Louise/Lydia doesn’t know exactly who she is, her character is blurred. The shift between the persons who narrate the story is well-used. Louise’s narrative is in the first person when she is herself and in the third person when she’s using Lydia’s name, a way to show she’s playing a role.

My analysis is that every grown-up has a responsibility in the disaster of Lydia’s death and Louise’s damaged childhood: the lovers for their affair, the spouses for knowing it and looking elsewhere.

Nicholas looks like a predator in the beginning. It was love at first sight. He wanted Lydia. “I knew I could take her away from him. I did love her, I did want her, and in that moment, as thereafter, I made no apology for it. Not to anyone”.  I’ve always thought English common expressions as ‘I want you’ or ‘You belong to me’ very possessive and aggressive. French is smoother and rather asks permission. The reader is led to thinking that Nicholas genuinely loved Lydia: “I felt the same sensation that had assaulted me the very first time I had seen her – that sense of homecoming, that whether I liked it or not, this was where I was meant to be.” To me, love stories are more due to chance than fate. I’m not convinced by the theme of “soul mates”, “kindred spirits” and associated Platonic idea of a lost half waiting for each of us somewhere.

Lydia is a mystery. No one will ever know why she stayed with Martin in 1983, especially since she was pregnant. Fear? Laziness? Father vs Lover complex? Martin is reassuring, a father figure, older, safe. Nicholas is the passion, the unknown. Or did she want to keep her great love intact, untouched by everyday life routine? Did she like and need the thrill of the secret rendezvous? Her relationship with Nicholas remains forever on the ‘lover’ stage. They never had to change bedsheets full of vomit at 3 am because their child had a stomach flu. (If anyone knows how to remain sexy after such a night, please e-mail me the recipe.) Their love was never at risk to be blown away by mundane everyday life details and Nicholas knows it:

For a moment I tried to imagine living with Lydia, our relationship stripped of all its secrecy and danger: saw us sitting cosily round the breakfast table, kissing and holding hands in public, introducing each other at parties. I had no idea whether these things would drain the passion steadily away from us, the way that I now saw they had done with me and Naomi.”

At first, Martin and Naomi appear to be the victims. Martin loved Louise like a dog his master. “His face had taken on the adoring spaniel look that was generally reserved for Lydia.” He put her on her pedestal. But is he really innocent in this disaster? He knew Louise was not his daughter. How did he find out? Fertility tests, I presume. When the two couples meet in 1989, Lydia tells Naomi they encounter difficulties to have another child. Lydia can bear a child. Martin is a scientist, he didn’t need much to acknowledge the obvious. Then, if he knew, why did he let the second affair go on? I suspect he may have hoped that the second affair would end as the first, a pregnancy. Did he use Nicholas to have another child?

I don’t understand Naomi. Why did she stay? For Adam? Every situation is different and it is hard to tell what is the best for children. I think that parents should not sacrifice too much of their own lives for their child. When the child realises the price paid for his sake, what a burden to bear! It’s a liability that can hardly be repaid. Is this child free to do what he wants with his life if he has such a debt? Afterwards, I wonder if Lydia’s death was not a chance for Naomi. It prevented Nicholas from leaving her and from having another affair. If Lydia had lived, he may have grown tired of her and other women may have replaced her. Thanks to Lydia’s death, Nicholas has been faithful to Naomi, at least physically.

This novel makes me think of a well crafted tragedy or a thriller in disguise. The writer leaves clues for the reader everywhere. For example, I had guessed that Louise was Nicholas’ daughter. I only did the maths, cross-referenced details when I was reading, without thinking. So, Louise’s relationship with Adam is genetically an incest. Can this be considered as an incest as they were not brought up together? In the last chapter, what I thought certain crumbled into doubt. When Louise dressed as her mother attends Nicholas’ lecture, men look at her with lust. Did Nicholas imagine it was love he was feeling when it was only lust? To discover that Martin knew that Louise was not his daughter made me reconsider my vision of him.

The Art of Losing raises a whirlwind of questions. About love. About marriage. About divorce and children. About secrets and lies. In the end, the underlying question is: “What it is to be in love?”. It seems to depend on where your ‘love-area’ is located in your body: in your brain, in your heart, on the top of your thighs. Maybe a happy, long-lasting, well-balanced relationship is when the two persons have their ‘love-area’ at the same place in their body. They have a better chance that their spouse instinctively gives them what they need. They don’t expect things they’ll never get.

The Red and the Black, Book II: wicked games

November 24, 2010 19 comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. The translation I used for the quotes is by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Do you like The Sorrows of Young Werther? Wuthering Heights? Romantic literature? I don’t. Every time I read a book from that movement I yawn, no matter how good it is supposed to be. So finishing The Red and the Black was sheer literary torture.

 Julien Sorel is now in Paris, working as a private secretary for the Marquis de la Mole, who has two children, Norbert and Mathilde. Both children are about the same age as Julien. The de la Mole are described as ancient nobility. Mme de la Mole values birth above all, no personal quality can surpass that of a high birth.

Julien has this particular position devoted to governesses, tutors and secretaries. They are above servants because they work with the house’s children and their education can make of them valuable companions for their masters but they remain servants. This ambiguous position is put forward by Stendhal in the Marquis’ attitude toward Julien. When Julien wears the black suit of the secretary, his relationship with the Marquis is that of a servant. When he wears the blue suit the Marquis gave him, he is his equal and they converse freely as the Marquis would with one of his peers. The clothe may not make the man but sure makes the gentleman.

Somewhere else in the mansion, Mathilde de la Mole is bored. She worships her ancestor Boniface de la Mole, who was Marguerite de Navarre’s lover and was beheaded on the Place de Grève on April 30th 1574. She thinks men during the reign of Henry the Third were braver than her contemporaries. Why does she admire this period of the Ancient Regime? The time of religion wars, massacres in the name of God and secession of the nobility from the king? In my vision, the reign of Louis the 14th was more flamboyant. Does she identifies to these troubled times as her time is troubled too and also requires to pick a side?

Her boredom reminds me of Musset describing le mal du siècle at the same period (1). Musset writes that love affairs were the only passionate things that remained. 19-year-old Mathilde is led to the same conclusion and starts fancying Julien because she wants to be in love and because he is different from the gentlemen she usually meets. Moreover, the potential scandal associated to having an affair with a plebeian increases the thrill of the relationship.  

Une idée l’illumina tout à coup : J’ai le bonheur d’aimer, se dit-elle un jour, avec un transport de joie incroyable. J’aime, j’aime, c’est clair! A mon âge, une fille jeune, belle, spirituelle, où peut-elle trouver des sensations, si ce n’est dans l’amour? J’ai beau faire, je n’aurai jamais d’amour pour Croisenois, Caylus, et tutti quanti. Ils sont parfaits, trop parfaits peut-être ; enfin, ils m’ennuient.

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: ‘I have the good fortune to be in love,’ she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of joy. ‘I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti. They are perfect, too perfect perhaps; in short, they bore me.’

 This street, Rue de l’Humilité (Humility Street) is certainly not where the Hôtel de la Mole was located. Neither Julien or Mathilde could have lived on such a street, for this concept is totally foreign to their minds. The beginning of their relationship is theatrical. They drop each other letters, they meet at night in dangerous conditions. Their affair is poisoned by second thoughts from the start and Julien knows it:

Mlle de la Mole me regarde d’une façon singulière. Mais, même quand ses beaux yeux bleus fixés sur moi sont ouverts avec le plus d’abandon, j’y lis toujours un fond d’examen, de sang-froid et de méchanceté. Est-ce possible que ce soit là de l’amour? Quelle différence avec les regards de Mme de Rênal!

‘Mademoiselle de La Mole keeps looking at me in a strange fashion. But, even when her beautiful blue eyes seem to gaze at me with least restraint, I can always read in them a cold, malevolent scrutiny. Is it possible that this is love? How different from the look in Madame de Renal’s eyes.’

Their relationship starts as a wicked game, like in a play by Marivaux. It makes the whoooole second book. That’s where I gave up the first time and I struggled to finish it, not to be tempted to try it again later. I found the story implausible. I won’t give more details to avoid spoilers but what a tedious reading! This book contains everything I dislike in romantic romance: fabricated pain, whims, big words, despair, violent actions supposed to show off deep feelings. To me, Mathilde and Julien are only two haughty and obnoxious people deserving the fate they made up for themselves. I felt no compassion for either of them and I thought Mme de Rênal beyond silly.

I suspect the romance between Julien and Mathilde inspired Proust for Swann’s Way on the aspect of a love created by mind delusion more than a genuine love feeling. Julien could say the same thing about Mathilde as Swann about Odette:

Dire que j’ai gâché des années de ma vie, que j’ai voulu mourir, que j’ai eu mon plus grand amour, pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre!

To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!” (translation C.K. Scott Moncrieff)

The second book is also full of political intrigues that totally escaped me. I have the kindle version and a help from a foreword would have been welcomed on that part. Or maybe Stendhal was standing in the middle of the way: a lot of details about Julien attending mysterious meetings and passing secret notes but not relevant enough for the reader to make something out of it. In addition to my lack of knowledge of the political context, it may also be a flaw of the novel.

If I try to set aside my distaste for this love story and my not-understanding the political issues, I liked Stendhal’s innovative style. He varies the narrative points of views, switching between Mathilde and Julien. He intervenes in the story, calling out to the reader. There are many spoken or unspoken dialogues. The reader sees situations through the characters’ partial and limited point of views. He avoids heavy literary and cultural references and uses simple but efficient words. There are very few descriptions of settings, homes, clothes. The whole book is centred on dialogues and workings of inner minds. About writing a novel, Stendhal states:  

Un roman est un miroir qui se promène sur une grande route. Tantôt il reflète à vos yeux l’azur des cieu, tantôt la fange des bourbiers de la route. Et l’homme qui porte le miroir dans sa hotte sera par vous accusé d’être immoral! Son miroir montre la fange et vous accusez le miroir! Accusez bient plutôt le grand chemin où est le bourbier, et plus encore l’inspecteur des routes qui laisse l’eau croupir et le bourbier se former.

A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.

Whatever. The problem for me was not the mirror or the man carrying it but indeed the road he chose to show us. I did not like it and I blame the road as a creation of the writer. 

  (1) The Confession of a Child of the Century was published in 1836.


Every human is an unknown island

November 20, 2010 16 comments

The Tale of the Unknown Island by José Saramago. Read by Albert Millaire

The first time I heard of José Saramago is when he died. Then I read a review of Blindness and one of The Double. Neither of them convinced me Saramago would be an author I could like (or could be an author I would like?) So I did what I often do when I want to discover a new writer without investing too much time: I picked up a short story, and in this case, in an audio version – a way to spice my cooking time.

The Tale of the Unknown Island starts as many fairy tales: a man knocks at the king’s castle door to ask for an appointment with the monarch. He wants him to give him a boat, to find the unknown island. The king is puzzled and asserts all islands are known and drawn on official maps. The man insists and the king gives in: he can go to the harbour and get a royal boat for his quest. However, the king says he will not provide him with the crew, the man shall find himself the appropriate sailors. A servant, who overhears the discussion between the man and the king, decides to leave the castle and follow the man and be a crew member. The chief of the harbour gives him a caravel. The man says he does not know how to sail but he will learn with the boat, on the sea. The servant explains why she is there and becomes his partner in the adventure. We soon understand they shall probably never leave the pier.

The man says every human is an unknown island. He is looking for himself and is convinced he needs to leave physically to find his unknown island. At the end of their first day on the boat, after sharing their thoughts, their projects and their meal, the man and the servant go to bed separately . The man has a dream and she is not in the dream, which is painful.“Dreams are skilled magicians, they can change the consistency of things and people”. His dream makes him realise his unknown island is this woman, sleeping on the other side of the boat. The end of the tale echoes what Romain Gary wrote in Clair de Femme:  

J’avais patrie féminine et il ne pouvait plus y avoir de quête. Mon pays avait une voix que la vie semblait avoir créée pour son propre plaisir, car j’imagine que la vie aussi a besoin de gaieté, à l’en juger par les fleurs des champs, qui sourient tellement mieux que les autres. I had found my feminine country and no quest would ever be necessary again. My country had a voice that life seemed to have created for her own pleasure, because I imagine life also needs joy, if one thinks of wild flowers, whose smile is so much wider than the others’.”

This tale is more than just this story, of course. The man has no name, he could be anyone, you, me. His journey is his life, as we often feel, a small boat floating on a sea of events, learning how to sail, day by day. The man could not find any other sailor than this woman, the men said they did not want to risk their comfort to find the unknown island, such a risky project. Yes, abandoning your certitudes for the unknown requires courage. So does deciding to turn your back on other people’s expectations to be yourself.

I was enchanted by the tale, the style. It sounded simple, sometimes ironic, sometimes poetic. The flow of words was natural to hear. I couldn’t remember why I was so sceptical about my liking Saramago after reading the reviews I mentioned before. Then I looked at the excerpt printed on the back of the CD and everything became clear. The style, so fluid, so easy when read aloud seemed impossible for silent reading: no point, only commas, capital letters after commas, only one sentence and the excerpt ends with suspension points revealing that the sentence is not finished. Now I wonder if the entire tale is made of one gigantic sentence. And I recall why I doubted I could read Saramago; I’m not build to read books with such creative punctuation and syntax. I may miss a remarkable writer, but I’m not tempted to try one of his novels.

The Red and the Black, Book I

November 18, 2010 7 comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. Translated as The Red and The Black by C K Scott Moncrieff. I will use this translaction for the quotes.

The Red and the Black is a coming-of-age novel, relating the story of Julien Sorel. This is a book I tried to read as a teenager, at the same time I read – and loved – Madame Bovary. It is one of the rare classics I abandoned because Julien Sorel got on my nerves.  

The novel starts in Verrières, a small city in Franche-Comté. Julien Sorel is a peasant’s son, despised by his father because he’s more interested in reading than working in the family sawmill. The two first instructors of Julien’s early age were his cousin the Surgeon-Major, who was in Napoleon’s Great Army and Reverend Father Chelan, a priest. The first one taught him to worship Napoleon and the second one to worship God. Julien concludes from these two teachers that only two valuable careers are possible for an ambitious but poor young man: the army (The Red) or the church (The Black). We are in 1827, during the Bourbon Restoration. Napoleon being dead and republican ideas prohibited, Julien decides to start a career in the Church.

Thanks to Reverend Chelan, Julien learnt Latin and was able to recite the Bible in Latin. He thus sounds really literate to Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières, who decides to hire Julien as a tutor for his children. Julien has an affair with Mme de Rênal and joins the seminary in Besançon to become a priest. 

Stendhal’s ambition is to show his time. “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road.” He portrays the Provincial life, with its narrow-minded, illiterate society. The local bourgeois are only interested in money. He also pictures France during the Restoration of the Bourbons. Pro-Napoleon people are defeated and monarchists come to power. Personal interests use historical events to take other people’s properties or positions. It reminds me of what I’ve read about behaviours during the Occupation and after 1945. Stendhal sometimes gives away his opinion:

La marche ordinaire du XIXème siècle est que, quand un être puissant et noble rencontre un homme de cœur, il le tue, l’exile, l’emprisonne ou l’humilie tellement, que l’autre a la sottise d’en mourir de douleur. The ordinary procedure of the nineteenth century is that when a powerful and noble personage encounters a man of feeling, he kills, exiles, imprisons or so humiliates him that the other, like a fool, dies of grief.

Stendhal excels in showing the true motors of his characters. Every one makes decision according to what matters to them or to their dominant traits of personality. Pride, ambition and money guide M. de Rênal and rule his decision making. He hires Julien as a tutor more to show off in Verrières than to really educate his children. Even when he suspects the love affair between his wife and Julien, the only thing he wants is to avoid scandal.

Jamais la vanité aux prises avec tout ce que le petit amour de l’argent peut avoir de plus âpre et de plus mesquin n’ont mis un homme dans un plus piètre état que celui où se trouvait M. de Rênal.  Never can vanity, at grips with all the nastiest and shabbiest elements of a petty love of money, have plunged a man in a more wretched state than that in which M. de Renal found himself.

Mme de Rênal is a typical woman of this century. Like Emma Bovary, Louise de Chaulieu, Renée de Maucombe or Jeanne Le Perthuis, she was educated in a convent. Here is what Stendhal thinks about her education:

Mme de Rênal s’était trouvé assez de sens pour oublier bientôt, comme absurde, tout ce qu’elle avait appris au couvent ; mais elle ne mit rien à la place et finit pas ne rien savoir. Madame de Renal had sufficient sense to forget at once, as absurdities, everything she had learned in the convent; but she put nothing else in its place, and ended by knowing nothing.

She is pure and innocent, despite her age and her children. She is driven by love. Stendhal could have written about her “Elle s’abandonna” (She gave herself away) like Flaubert will when Emma surrenders to Rodolphe.

Stendhal is impressive in his way to desiccate how love grows. The romance between Julien and Mme de Rênal reminds me of Rousseau and Mme de Warens, except that Julien never calls her ‘mom’ (What Freud would do with Rousseau calling his older mistress ‘mom’ is another story). In both cases, the love story blooms in the country in a bucolic setting. In the foreword of Journey into the Past by Zweig, the translator compares Ludwig’s lover to Mme de Rênal. Reading Stendhal now, I think the comparison accurate.  

Julien is the product of the beginning of the 19th C. He is the child of the Revolution and First Empire. He thinks birth is not what gives a man his value. He is driven by a devouring ambition and an unshakeable pride. When he hears about the job opportunity at M. de Rênal’s, his first move is to ask if he will be considered as a servant. Then he is conceited enough to think:

Il faut renoncer à cela, se dit-il, plutôt que de se laisser réduire à manger avec les domestiques. Mon père voudra m’y forcer ; plutôt mourir. ‘I must give up all that,’ he said to himself, ‘rather than let myself be brought down to feeding with the servants. My father will try to force me; I would sooner die.

Sometimes, Julien is really heartless and rotten by hypocrisy and ambition. Stendhal thoroughly describes the workings of his calculating mind. From the very start, I didn’t like him because of such thoughts as this one about Mme de Rênal:

Cette femme ne peut plus me mépriser : dans ce cas, se dit-il, je dois être sensible à sa beauté ; je me dois à moi-même d’être son amant. ‘This woman cannot despise me any longer: in that case,’ he said to himself, ‘I ought to be stirred by her beauty; I owe it to myself to be her lover.’

He considers falling in love as a project. How can someone purposely “fall” in love? Julien sure has qualities. He is hard working and intelligent. As a peasant’s son, his manners are clumsy and inappropriate. He is very ignorant about how to behave in good society. But he is handsome and knows how to be amiable. The Reverend takes him under his wings, Mme de Rênal educates him a little. He is a quick learner and, aware of his lack of propriety, he rapidly improves.

His pride, associated to a strong admiration for Napoleonian heroism, can make him take reckless actions.

He is a complex character, alternatively driven by the coldest thoughts and by hottest passion. He has a terrible ability for concealment and hypocrisy. He joins the seminary only by ambition:

Sous Napoléon, j’eusse été sergent ; parmi ces futurs curés, je serai grand vicaire. ‘Under Napoleon, I should have been a sergeant; among these future cures, I shall be a Vicar-General.’

What is shocking to me is that religion should be a calling and not a career path.

People can’t be indifferent to him. They either like him or hate him. He creates his own enemies by his haughty nature, both at Verrières and in the seminary. Like the characters in the book, he doesn’t leave me indifferent either, I’m much repelled by his coldness, his pride and his hypocrisy.

Book II will show the sequel of his adventures.

Lorraine Connection

November 15, 2010 14 comments

Lorraine Connection, by Dominique Manotti. Translated in English by Amanda Hopkinson – Ros Schwartz

I always find it difficult to write about crime fiction, especially to sum up the plot without giving away too many details. Here is the blurb of Lorraine Connection:

“In Pondange, Lorraine, Daewoo owns a plant that manufactures cathode-ray tubes. It’s the only job provider in this area, which used to live on iron and steel industry. Nobody really cares about working conditions, until the employees start a riot. The factory is on fire. Is this fire really an accident? It’s Fall, 1996, the Daewoo plant is in the middle of a strategic fight to takeover Thomson, a blue ship of French economy. Matra, allied to Daewoo, won the bargain. But Alcatel, its supplanted rival, doesn’t give up the fight. And when such a firm fights back, it’s with considerable means. Murders, backhanded blows, underhand manoeuvres, nothing daunts the rivals that fight in this giant Monopoly”

The warning at the beginning of the book is clear: “This is a novel. Everything is true, everything is a lie”.  Indeed, Dominique Manotti writes crime fiction novels based on economical scandals and true facts.

Lorraine Connection was published in 2006 and is about the Daewoo plant which was built with European funds on the premises of former iron and steel works in Lorraine. The iron and steel crisis of the 1980s was a tragedy for this region. Factories closed one after the other, people were either unemployed or early retired (at 50). The landscape was made of dead factories, ghostly remembrance of a glorious past, when this place was an economical champion for France. I come from this region, not from the Fensch valley, described in this book, but from a nearby valley. Dominique Manotti found the right words to describe the place, its inhabitants, the atmosphere after the economical debacle. She even thought of culinary details, like when someone brings a “tarte aux questches” (a dark-red plum pie), which is a very local desert. Pondange doesn’t exist but sounds like many towns in that area, were names ending by ‘ange’ are widespread. I think Pondage corresponds to Hayange.

The only thing that sounded fake was the characters’ names: Maréchal, Quignard, Lepetit. The local dialect is based on German. The iron and steel industry attracted massive immigration waves from Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal and later, from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. So those very francophone names are strange. When I was 15, I can only recall of one pupil having a francophone name in my about 25 students class. All the others had, like me, a foreign name, mostly Italian or German.

That’s the major flaw I found in this book. Otherwise, all clicks well. Dominique Manotti’s style is efficient and easy to read, with a good rhythm. That this book based on true facts makes me shiver. Only the characters were born from the writer’s imagination and fit in the Noir pattern: silly police officers, a private detective with his own wounds, moral code and tainted past, a handsome woman directly linked to the events. A good read, like a good movie.  Recommended.

Here are links (in French, sorry) about the Daewoo waste, if someone wants to learn more about it.

PS: This book was the 2008 winner of the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger prize, to award crime fiction books in translation.

Citizen, speak French please.

November 13, 2010 7 comments

I bet my government wouldn’t approve of my blogging in English. The picture included in this post is an advertisement published by the French State to fight against English words in our vocabulary. This one is about cars. It says You can say it in French and gives the French translation of GPS, carjacking and crossover. We should use géonavigateur, piraterie routière and véhicule métis instead. There’s even a web site : where you can find French equivalent for English words. It’s funny and serious at the same time.

The guardians of pure French against the assaults of English words in our beautiful language should read Proust – re-read Proust, let’s be optimistic. I noticed the use of several English words instead of French ones, not to point out snobbery, like in Madame Swan at Home, but probably because these words had no equivalent in French at the time. Most of them I had never heard of in a French conversation. For example, clubman, which is neither in my English dictionary nor in my French one. We would say fêtard or noctambule to say clubber. I also saw sportsman for the word sportif commonly used nowadays. I also noticed things like this in the 1950s translation of On the Road. When the French equivalent is not too complicated for common people to use, it can impose itself and replace the English word. To me, there is no way that GPS be replaced by géonavigateur, it’s too long. The other way round the very French cafèterie used by Proust has been replaced by a less French cafétéria.

 I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s a good thing that we try to use French words for new realities. The media have a decisive role to play in that area, they help to impose the new word in our speaking habits. We should not give up the fight but sometimes, it’s just ridiculous. In Quebec, where they are really finicky about not using English words in their French, they even translated hot-dog. Why not translate polenta or couscous too? On the other hand, as I also read in English, I see words like cliché, déjà vu or ménage à trois. Should Anglophones protest against that?

 I’m not a specialist on the matter, just a regular citizen. I think a lot of common sense is useful. Languages just enrich one another. The problem is more that America tends to impose its way of life than the use of English words. I looked for the recommended French word for manga on the above mentionned web site. There is none. My opinion is that there is no try to replace manga by a French word because Japan is not a threat for the French way of life…

PS : Au fait ! The official French word for blog is bloc-note. Nobody is going to use bloc-note for that, the mental picture associated with bloc-note is a paper notebook accompanied by a pencil and a rubber.

Categories: Opinion, Proust, Marcel

I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain’t no joke!

November 10, 2010 17 comments

Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school  I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”. First sentence of Portnoy’s Complaint and I was already rocking with laughter.

 This book is a written one-man-show. Alexander Portnoy, a Jew, is lying – or so I imagine him – on a sofa in his shrink’s office. He talks, weeps, shouts his life to Doctor Spielvogel, who describes Alex’ disorder as follows: “Portnoy’s Complaint. A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”

Portnoy is a very clever Jewish fellow, who, like Philip Roth, grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark, NY. He tries to understand why he is “Thirty-three, and still ogling and daydreaming about every girl who crosses her legs opposite him in the subway” when he should be a perfect Jewish husband and a perfect Jewish father in Newark, as his parents expect him to be.

In a rather disorderly way, he starts relating his childhood and the different relationships he had with women. The narration runs back and forth from the past to the present time. Alex can’t accept the dichotomy between his social identity and his internal identity. Socially, he is the lawyer, the knight of poor, illiterate and immigrant people in their relationship with the administration. He fights inequalities. Personally, he is insecure and obsessed by sex. He suffers from compulsive masturbation and all kinds of inhibitions, coming, he thinks, from his childhood.

“Inhibition doesn’t grow on trees, you know – takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hard-working attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being.”

He thus tries to decipher where his temper comes from through analyzing his childhood. He describes how his mother hovers over his every move and thought. He portrays his father as a worried insurance collector. “Why his head aches him all the time, is of course because he is constipated all the time – why he is constipated is because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the firm of Worry, Fear & Frustration”. Like every child, he has recriminations against his parents but he loves them and he is lucid enough to acknowledge: “All the faults come from the parents, right, Alex, what’s wrong, they did – what’s good, you accomplished all on your own!”

Little by little, Alex unknits the course of events that brought him here, in that doctor’s office. He just ended one-year relationship with a woman he nicknamed “The Monkey” in a cruel manner: as he abandoned her in a hotel in Greece, in the middle of their vacation. She’s as horny as he is, very attractive and prone to any of his sexual fantasies. They get along really well and are “The perfect couple: she puts the id back in Yid, I put the oy back in goy.” When she starts thinking about marriage, Alex freaks out. He is ashamed of her, who wears inappropriate sexy clothes at a Mayor’s reception and can’t spell words properly. He loves her though, she suits him but she’s not educated enough, not respectable enough to be presented to his family. She’s no marriage material. Put in front of the Cornelian dilemma of looking for a perfectly well-bred woman who would consider dirty to give him a blow-job or face his family and friends and impose his preference, he runs from the Monkey and ends up in the shrink’s office. Isn’t that splendid irony to be Jewish and have the typically Christian ‘whore or saint’ problem with women?

The sexual problem is just a pretext to comical effects. It brings light and funny but doesn’t erase Alex’ genuine internal mayhem or the underlying analysis of what it was to be a Jew born in the 1930s in America.

I enjoyed reading about life in this Jewish neighborhood that I had already discovered in The Plot Against America. Like the first time, I was surprised to read how self-sufficient they were, as if they had re-created a ghetto. The goyish world looks like another country in Alex’ eyes. He spies on WASPS houses, wonders how they live behind those curtains. His description of his first days in a goyish house reminded me of my first holidays abroad, in a Welsh family, a mixture of familiar and foreign. As a Jew, he sides with all the other immigrants and feels inferior to wasps. His parents don’t speak English properly or use Yiddish words. There’s an anecdote about not knowing at school the English word for ‘spatula’ which sounded like family stories from my mother telling an Italian word to her grammar school teacher for a mundane every day life instrument, because she hadn’t realized the word she knew was not a French one.

This quote “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are so much fired rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine!” reminded me what I heard on the radio the other day: Frenchmen with origins from Morocco or Algeria enjoy living in London because in the eyes of the British, they are just French people who speak English with a French accent. Alex feels like a foreigner is his own country.

Along with the description of a Jewish environment, Portnoy’s Complaint is also about how it feels to have such a brilliant mind that you get a scholarship to study in an Ivy League University and reach the upper social class. Alex never feels at ease in his new world, he doesn’t have the same background. He doesn’t know the customs but he tries to adapt.

 Let’s talk about the style of this book. It is all spoken language, with a lot of slang words. Ladies and Gentlemen! I have an announcement to make: I’m positive, the kindle dictionary doesn’t include all the American slang words available describe human genitals. I’ve tested it for you, I had to go back to my paper dictionary. Very educational. I probably missed play-on-words, but I’m glad I’ve read it in English anyway. I wonder: Doctor Spielvogel, which means “Toy-bird” or “Play-bird” in German, is that a sexual innuendo? Or did this book just give my mind a wrong twist?

 There would be a lot to say about this book, published in 1967 and probably one of the firsts on such a subject. It’s equally entertaining and deep. I have a request for you, Mr Roth: Could you write a book where Arturo Bandini and Alexander Portnoy compare their mothers, their lives as non-WASPS, their political ideas and their ways to atheism? They could be drinking beers in an atheist heaven of your choice – not in one of those Floridian ghettos for senior citizens, please, none of them could stand it. They would sit in a smoky bar and tell each other anecdotes, share their Freudian issues and talk about women. That could be huge fun, but hurry up, because after that, I’d like Woody Allen to shoot a film version of your book.

Her ability to love was her gift.

November 7, 2010 11 comments

Un Coeur simple, by Gustave Flaubert. Read by Marie-Christine Barrault. English title:  A Simple Heart.

A Simple Heart is a short story first published in 1877 in the book Three Tales. It tells the life of the servant Félicité in the Normandy of early 19th Century. Right from title, Flaubert sums up Félicité. Indeed, in French, “des gens simples” (‘simple people’) are a way to call decent people from the working class. “Simple”, applied to mind, also describes someone with a limited intelligence. (‘simple d’esprit’). “Avoir du coeur” (to have a good heart) is used to picture generous people. That’s Félicité: hardworking, loving and with a slow intelligence. It is confirmed by the two first sentences:

Pendant un demi-siècle, les bourgeoises de Pont-l’Évêque envièrent à Mme Aubain sa servante Félicité. Pour cent francs par an, elle faisait la cuisine et le ménage, cousait, lavait, repassait, savait brider un cheval, engraisser les volailles, battre le beurre, et resta fidèle à sa maîtresse,-qui cependant n’était pas une personne agréable. For half a century the housewives of Pont-l’Evêque had envied Madame Aubain her servant Félicité. For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress—although the latter was by no means an agreeable person.

As soon as Mme Aubain hires Félicité, the latter’s food and shelter are assured. She will never lose that and it is already important for the time.

However, her temper is to love without expecting anything in return. She loves Théodore, then her mistress’ children, her nephew, her parrot. Every time a dreadful event deprives her from the object of her love, she finds another one. She never complains. Flaubert is sometimes ironic about her but I never felt like mocking her, even when she decided to have her parrot stuffed in order to keep him near her after he died. After each misfortune, she weeps, like in the following quote, when Théodore marries someone else, and then moves on with her life:

Ce fut un chagrin désordonné. Elle se jeta par terre, poussa des cris, appela le bon Dieu, et gémit toute seule dans la campagne jusqu’au soleil levant. The poor girl’s sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise.

The translation uses the word “frightful”, which corresponds to Flaubert’s idea. But the word he used “désordonné” means “untidy” or “disorderly” and it is not a word commonly used to describe sorrow. Yet it pictures really well the scene.

I would like to comment the names of the characters. Félicité means felicity. This sounds a little ironic as I am not sure it is a state of mind she often felt. Mme Aubain’s name reminds me of the word “Aubaine”. In French, an “aubaine” means a godsend, a bargain. The meeting between Félicité and Mme Aubain is indeed a godsend for both of them. Of course, Mme Aubain had a good, faithful, brave, hardworking servant. But, although Mme Aubain was not an agreeable woman, Félicité was not ill-treated in her house and her life was sweeter than the one she would have spent in a farm. The children’s names are Paul & Virginie. I can’t help thinking it is a reference to the novel “Paul & Virginie” by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. It is the symbol of pure love.

I enjoy Flaubert’s prose. Every word is at the right place. He only needs a few sentences to perfectly describe a room and an atmosphere. He shows us the simple life of Provincial people, with their joys and sorrows. These people try to float on the flow of events that fate throws in their lives. They accept them, they suffer, they adapt with dignity. 

It is a short text and here are the files, if anyone is interested: GUSTAVE_FLAUBERT-Un_coeur_simple (in French) A_simple_heart (in English)


Sugar without cellulite

November 5, 2010 11 comments

Everyone Worth Knowing, by Lauren Weisberger

I needed sugar in my blood stream. The only sugar I know that doesn’t fall down on my hips in sexy cellulite is chick lit. Honestly, neither Alexander Portnoy’s troubles nor Julien Sorel’s ambition could fulfil that need, so I set aside what I was reading to dive into Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger.

This is pure American chick lit, with all the necessary clichés: beautiful and rich people, glamorous jobs, shallow and selfish human beings. It’s as far from my everyday life as life in China in the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi. It is full of references to fashion and brands that I’ve never heard of because I don’t read Elle or Cosmopolitan, sorry I meant ‘Cosmo’. I skipped the passages describing night-clubbing in New-York and concentrated on silly dialogues to end it as fast as I could. To top it off, the main character, Bette, falls for a man named Sammy. And when I hear Sammy, it’s a rooted reflex from childhood, I can’t help thinking of Scoobidoo, which didn’t help me to take this seriously.

I was looking for something light and funny like Bridget Jone’s Diary and found a Harlequin in disguise. Yuck. Instead of sugar, I got artificial sweetener. The translator was thoughtful enough to change Bette’s name into ‘Beth’ probably because a ‘bette’ is a vegetable (a Swiss chard) and it sounds like ‘Bête’, which means ‘stupid’. She shouldn’t have, it would have been true-to-life.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, the writer thanks her agent, for taking care of practical details and thus give her enough time to write her book, which will leave a mark in literature (!) and her parents , whose help was decisive for her to write this masterpiece (!!) I’m not inventing this. I only hope it is self-irony.

If anyone is interested, the ‘masterpiece’ has a page on Wikipedia. Thinking she earned 1 million dollar for writing that when gifted authors struggle to make a living makes me sick. To avoid.

Hidden Lives, by Sylvie Germain.

November 2, 2010 7 comments

L’Inaperçu, by Sylvie Germain. Translated as Hidden Lives

The novel opens on a catching scene: a woman is running along the Seine, holding something/someone close to her chest. It’s the end of December, 1967. A man, dressed in Santa Claus, Pierre, sees her and runs after her, probably to prevent a suicide.

She is Sabine Bérynx, a young widow, who lost her husband Georges two years ago in a terrible car accident. She has three sons – Henri, the eldest, followed by twins, Hector and René – and a daughter, Marie. Her father in law, Charlam, the contraction of Charles-Amédée, is authoritarian and built in concrete by certitudes and principles.

The first part of the novel consists in introducing the reader to this family and its main drama, the death of Georges, the husband, the father, the son, the nephew. This chapter of their lives ends with Sabine hiring Pierre to work for her in the gardening store she inherited from Georges. Eight years pass by and we find the family again as it is stricken by a new drama: Pierre disappears. The reader knows what happened but almost all the protagonists are blind. This second part relates how the members of the family cope with it.

All along the novel, we learn more about each member of the family, what they do with their lives and what particular event, unknown from the others, sealed their destiny. Each of them had to face a decisive moment, unspeakable because it carries shame, pain or feelings condemned by society.

Sylvie Germain has a vegetable way to describe feelings. The intimate sensations of the characters are always compared to nature. When desperate, they wish they could melt with the earth, become trees, change in flowers. Her style is poetic, lyric, musical. She likes to build long sentences full of adjectives following one after the other.

Jusqu’au soir, la lumière déploie alors d’admirables ondoiements de soie bleu intense lamé de rose, de safran, de lilas, de carmin, de grenat. Until night does light then spread out remarkable waves of intense blue silk, lamé with rose, saffron, lilac, carmine, dark red.

 The French title, “Inaperçu” had several meanings. The first one refers to the English titles “Hidden Lives” and the secret inner life of each character. But “Inaperçu” also means “unnoticed” and that’s what these characters aim at when they are hurt. They want live unnoticed, leave no trace of their passage in this world, cross life like shadows, immobile and passive like plants. They become wallflowers. Here is the description of a century-old turtle, to which one of the characters identifies:  

Elle avait un pouvoir d’immobilité fascinant, c’était une masse de patience, un bloc de vie au ralenti, voire en dormance. Peut-être n’appartenait-elle pas entièrement à l’ordre des vivants, mais se tenait-elle au croisement du minéral, du végétal et de l’animal? She has a fascinating capacity to stay still, she was a mass of patience, a block of slow or even sleepy life. Perhaps didn’t she totally belong to the living but was standing at the crossroads between mineral, vegetable or animal kingdoms?

It is well written but we have seen it all before. The wounds endured by these people are classic in such novels: guilt, repressed homosexuality, incestuous desires. It tells how a guilty conscience can ruin a life, how a lack of communication can create tsunamis in existences, how dramas experienced in childhood can twist a child’s development. The book is full of cheap underlying references to psychoanalysis. I was sometimes under the impression I was reading a parabola written by Françoise Dolto for one of her lecture on child development.

I also thought there were too many characters for so short a novel (243 pages). As a consequence, none is fully developed. Perhaps it was Sylvie Germain’s purpose to show no body runs really right and that we all have personal cracks in our souls.

Despite its literary qualities, this novel never found its way down from my brains to my heart. I remained a distant spectator and felt no compassion or sympathy for any of them.

In the category of novels dealing with family built on secrecy or destroyed by a dramatical event and/or the resulting guilty conscience of a parent, I prefer “Un secret” (A secret) by Philippe Grimberg or Impardonables (Unforgivable: a Novel) by Philippe Djian.

PS : I noticed that when I first wrote this post, I called the main character Sylvie, like the author, instead of Sabine. A Freudian stip? While reading it, I perceived this story might have autobiographical elements.

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